Planet earth and human health

17 February 2017

Climate Change and the Health of Nations
By Anthony McMichael with Alistair Woodward and Cameron Muir
Published by Oxford University Press on 23 February

A better understanding of the close relationship between the life-support systems of our planet with human health and disease, is the focus of a new book by pioneering Australian epidemiologist, Tony McMichael.

Professor McMichael, from the Australian National University, died unexpectedly in 2014, before the book was completed.

His wife, Dr Judith Healy, asked Professor Alistair Woodward (Head of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland) to pick up the project and bring the book to publication.

Alistair was a PhD student of Tony’s, and followed Tony as the leader of climate and health assessments for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The book has now been published by Oxford University Press, with assistance from Dr Cameron Muir, an environmental historian at the Australian National University.

Dr Healy notes in the preface that, “The book stems from Tony’s keen interest in the long history of health and disease and upon his pioneering work, stretching over more than 20 years, on the impact of climate change on human populations.

“He wanted this book to contribute to a better understanding of the intertwined relationship between humans and their environment and to how human populations are impacted by, and impact upon, the life support systems of our planet.”

Climate Change and the Health of Nations is the first close examination of how climate has played upon the health and fates of populations throughout the 200,000 year history of the human species.

Examples of this include the ebb and flow of the Plague across Asia and Europe, the abnormally dry and cool period that hastened the end of the Mayan civilisation, the influence of climate change on the Roman empire, and the turbulent years after the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused temperatures to plummet around the world.

“Knowledge about past human experiences of natural climate shifts, alerts us to the risks that humankind faces,” wrote Professor McMichael. “The landscapes of past millennia are littered with famines and fevers, often provoked by natural changes in climate systems.”

Professor Woodward says, “For me, there are three take home messages. First, the full story of our species shows that natural climate change has always been an influence on human health, throughout our history.

“Second, like all species, humans evolved for a particular climate niche,” he says. “Any disturbance, anything that pushes us outside ‘the Goldilocks Zone’ poses a potential threat depending on the extent and speed of change and how well individuals and populations are equipped to respond.

“And finally, humans are now responsible for accelerated climate change, more extensive and rapid than anything faced previously,” says Professor Woodward. “It is urgent we fully understand and respond to this existential challenge.”

“The book is more timely than ever” says Professor Woodward. “When I finished my PhD under Tony’s supervision in 1989 the CO2 level in the atmosphere was about 350 parts per million. The level is now above 400 ppm and rising steadily.

“And now we have a President of the USA who sees no need for his country to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases; who is deeply suspicious of international agreements of any kind; and who has said that climate change is a hoax, cooked up by the Chinese to undermine the US economy,” he says.

Are we so clever, so resourceful, so numerous, that humans now can handle whatever the climate throws at us? Professor McMichael argues it would be foolish to assume that what applied in the past is not relevant to the future.

He points out there are many people, billions, living in difficult circumstances, acutely exposed to extremes and variability in the weather, and modern inter-connected societies have their weak points – complex systems are vulnerable in their own ways.

“Think of just in time transport of essential goods, information technology, and modern cities built on the assumption of 24/7 air conditioning,” says Professor Woodward. “It is a challenging picture, but Tony believed in the power of evidence, facts, and reasoned argument. And there are some grounds for optimism.”

“Global information flows are heightening awareness of the causes, processes, and consequences of climate change,” Professor McMichael wrote in the preface. “Young researchers, willing to look beyond the conventional bounds of their disciplines, are now engaging with this topic, responding to challenges, and knowing that their work is contributing to the global common good at this epochal time.

“As people’s knowledge about, and experiences of, climate change accumulate, as climate science strengthens, and with a reality check garnered from history’s archives, we humans may yet take extraordinary international action.”

The book was widely endorsed by top international public health experts including the leaders of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, and the Director of Public Health for the World Health Organisation.

It was launched this month in Canberra and will be available to the public from 23 February.

For media enquiries email Suzi Phillips, Media Advisor Medical and Health Sciences.